Saturday, 17 February 2018

Linford Wood parkrun

I last visited the New Town of Milton Keynes, which forms part of the ceremonial county of Buckinghamshire, back in 2014 when I ran at Milton Keynes parkrun (my blog). In the time since my visit, attendance numbers had began to creep up into the 500's (occasionally into the 600's), and the town was really in need of a second venue. In July 2016 that second venue went live and it's name is Linford Wood parkrun.

linford wood (parkrun)

Finally in February 2018 I got around to visiting the event which unsurprisingly takes place in Linford Wood. I drove and parked on Foxhunter Drive which adjacent to the start line. There is also an official car park located a short distance away off of Breckland Road. Had I been local and cycled, I would have used the bike racks outside the venue's post-run breakfast venue, Ora Cafe, which is in sight of the finish line.

If I had travelled by train I would have alighted at Milton Keynes Central train station which is just over 2 miles away and covered the rest of the journey on foot as a warm-up jog, but there are also bus services that will help you complete the journey - I'd advise checking these independently as they may be quite infrequent. For the record, there are no toilet facilities here - actually there is one in the cafe but it is only for customer use and I believe only post-run. As I had been driving for 1.5 hours, I decided to have a quick pit-stop at a local McDonalds en-route.

the opening stretch

Linford Wood covers an area of 97.1 acres and is the oldest remaining woodland within Milton Keynes. Eighty percent of the area has been continuously wooded for at least 700 years and this gives it Ancient Woodland status (I visited a parkrun in ancient woodland the previous week as well), the other twenty percent are trees that have been planted at later dates. The mature trees in the wood are predominately Ash (60%) and Oak (31%). During the spring, 'swathes of Bluebells' appear, creating a beautiful sight.

It would have been part of the Manor of Great Linford and in 1284 was enclosed by Baron Ralph Von Pippard as a deer park (for hunting) and for pig pannage (releasing domestic pigs into a wood in order for them to forage for acorns, nuts etc..). At one time the wood would have been connected to the village of Great Linford (and the Manor House) by a tree-lined lane.

underpasses

When Milton Keynes was designated a New Town in 1967 the wood was retained as a haven for people and for wildlife. It sits in its own Linford Wood grid square, which also features a few office and industrial units. It is still home to deer and many other species of wildlife including bats, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The latter two finding homes in and around the wood's seven ponds. Pathways were laid in the early 1970's to give the local community good access and many of these are still in use today.

Upon arriving in the woods, the meeting point and start area was very easy to find as it was visible from my parking spot on Foxhunter Drive. The main run briefing takes place next to Keeper's Cottage Pond and the participants then move over to the start area which is in the north-east corner of the woods. The 5 kilometre run takes place over one single lap which covers a large part of the woods and some adjacent areas.

a made a new friend during the run

Underfoot is 100% hard surfaces (tarmac or similar) so road shoes are the way to go all year around, and the course profile is basically flat with the exception of the occasional underpass slopes which are all encountered during the first 2.5km of the run. The average attendance is about 180, but be warned that if Milton Keynes parkrun cancels, this is likely to jump up to around 500.

From the start, the participants head in a southerly direction along the eastern border of the woods. In fact the first half of the run is exclusively run on the Milton Keynes Redway System (Redways) which are a network of shared use pedestrian/cyclist footpaths. The redway name has also found its way into the local running community, with Redway Runners being the name of one of the local running clubs - very well represented I must add.

stanton wood and back into linford wood

At 800 metres into the run, the course leaves Linford Wood and enters the residential grid square of Conniburrow via the first of four underpasses that are part of the route. After following the Redway through the first three of these underpasses (via the adjacent grid square of Bradwell Common), the course returns to greener pastures as it follows the redway along the border of Heelands Sports Field and Stanton Wood - this wood, which is not ancient woodland, used to be contiguous with Linford Wood, but the main road now separates the two.

Once through the final footpass, the second half of the run takes place wholly within Linford Wood. The paths here are a little narrower than the redways, but as the field would have thinned out considerably, it doesn't cause a problem. After travelling through the western part of the wood, the course then turns towards the centre. It's worth noting that around here is a separate path containing a nature art trail - it's not part of the course, but it features some brilliant wood carvings in old tree stumps.

into the woods...

Anyway... just after the 4 kilometre point, the fun really begins. If you've read my other blogs you will know I'm a fan of twisty courses, because, well, they are so much fun. This next section features, I think, 17 corners which alternate from left to right. They are all quite meandery (ie no tight corners), and flow extremely well. Brilliant!

Finally the course emerges from the woods back at the original meeting point at Keeper's Cottage Pond where there is a 250 metre stretch to go before reaching the finish line. Barcode scanning takes place here and then it's time to head into the adjacent office/industrial area where the Ora Cafe can be found. I headed back out onto the course to continue taking photos for the blog (they have a very smiley, wavey bunch of runners here! Also there's an album on flickr) and before I knew it had run out of time and had to leave, so sadly didn't get the chance to sample the breakfast.

the last 300 metres and the finish

I had recorded the run with my Garmin and you can view the course data (hill profile etc) on Strava. I also created a course fly-by video with the Relive app on my phone. The results were online before I arrived home and event 87 had attracted a total of 276 attendees. As always, a massive thanks goes out to all of the volunteers - I had a great time!

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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Kent Cross Country League 2017/18: Sparrows Den

The final fixture of the 2017/18 Kent Cross Country League took place at Sparrows Den, West Wickham. Sparrows Den Playing Fields is simply an area of open grassland which is laid out with sports fields, with rugby being the main sport.

Although the official name of the race is 'Sparrows Den', it is only the race HQ, toilets and the start/finish area that actually uses this area. Technically the race itself is almost entirely (96%) run in the adjacent area of Spring Park. Only the first and last 200 metres are run within the Sparrows Den area.

hoops! [photo: anoushka]

Spring Park consists of open grass areas which are contiguous to the Sparrows Den playing fields and a large wooded area. Car parking for this race is possible in a number of local car parks or on Woodland Way which is the road behind the woods.

The course is made up of the start/finish straight in Sparrows Den and then the description gets a little weird. The official description of the men's race is as as follows; 1 lap of the field, 1 lap of the woods, 1 lap of the field, 1 lap of the woods, 1 lap of the field, 1 lap of the woods, 1 lap of the field, and lastly onto the finish straight and you're done.

course map / parts of the course [photos: 7t]

The majority of the course is largely flat, but there are two hills to climb as you head in a north-west direction through the woods, and although not terribly long, they are quite steep and bloody hard work. My favourite section of the course is the meandering single track path that runs along the southern border of the wooded area.

Despite having some stomach pain (possibly a stitch) during the middle of the race, I had a reasonable run and finished pretty much where I would expect to finish. It's a great cross-country course which is certainly very suitable for cross-country spikes.

I finished in 125th position in an official time of 47.21.

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Sunday, 11 February 2018

Banstead Woods parkrun

The village of Banstead is nestled on the north downs and is bordered by large areas of land with Metropolitan Green Belt status. It sits the county of Surrey just a couple of miles from the border with London. The first recorded mention of it was in 967 AD, and it appeared in the 1087 Domesday Book as Benestede. Banstead currently has a population of around 16,000 people.

To the south east of the main village area is Banstead Woods. The woods cover 250 acres and are classified as ancient woodland which means the area has been continuously wooded since at least 1600 AD. Many hundreds of years ago, the woods were owned by the Crown and were enclosed as a royal deer park under the name Banstead Park Estate. The last Queen to own the woods was Henry the VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

banstead woods

In 1841, while under the ownership of the Spencer family, the estate was renamed Banstead Wood. Later on the woods came into the Baring family (founders of the now collapsed Barings Bank) who built a large house within the woods. The building subsequently became The Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Sick Children and has now been converted into flats.

In 1939, during the Second World War, the woods came under to control of the War Department and was used as a camp for the Canadian military. Later on in the war, the woods were used as a prisoner of war camp called 'Westonacres Camp No.239'. In present times, the area is known as 'Banstead Woods and Chipstead Downs Local Nature Reserve' (LNR), and is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

around the course

I was of course here for Banstead Woods parkrun, which is one of the grand old parkruns - in fact when it had its inaugural run back in 2007 there were only two other venues, Bushy and Wimbledon. It was set up by Chris Phelan and back then would have been known as Banstead Woods Time Trial. At time of writing, it has the longest-standing (male) course record which was set on 7 June 2008.

Banstead holds a special place in my own parkrun history as it was the location of my first (and second) ever parkrun back in May 2011, and for a while I had it officially set as my home venue. I also ran here as part of my New Year's Day double (unofficially a triple) in 2014. Back in 2011 my blog posts weren't quite as detailed as they are now, so when, in February 2018, I had a nearby afternoon cross-country race, I thought it would be nice to go back, see some familiar faces and update the blog.

around the course

I drove to the venue and parked in the Holly Lane Car park which is free-of-charge. However the main event car park is at Park Farm, which is just a little further along Holly Lane (and closer to the start). If I had travelled by train I would have headed for Chipstead Train Station. For the record there is a train station in Banstead, but this is significantly further away. There are some cycle racks located within the Holly Lane car park.

On your first visit here, you may need to follow other participants in order to find the meeting point, but don't worry, there'll be plenty of people heading in the right direction. By the way, I'm not aware of any toilet facilities at this venue. The start of the run is located in a slightly different spot to the finish, so leave a few extra minutes to walk around to the start area, which is half-way up a hill (incline).

around the course

Once the run briefing has taken place the participants, 141 on this occasion, are sent off on their Saturday morning 5k around the woods. The course is just under two anti-clockwise laps of the woods. Underfoot is woodland trail paths with some tree roots and stones mixed in, so that means dirt when it's dry and mud when it's wet. On this occasion, I ran in a mixture of the two which wasn't too bad, but I have run here in very challenging, splashy, muddy conditions. Trail shoes are my preferred option on this course at all times of year, but road shoes are absolutely fine when it's dry.

The beginning can be a little congested as the path immediately narrows down a little after a few metres. However the path soon opens back up which gives plenty of space for participants to settle into the appropriate position in the field. As far as features to look out for around the course go, the last surviving pond in the woods is located next to the second corner (the southern tip of the course) - it was restored in 2011. There were once seven ponds, dug in medieval times to provide drinking water for the hunted animals (deer).

part of the narnia trail

On the subject of features, Banstead Woods is very well known for its bluebells and people specifically come here in spring to see them. It's also worth noting another recent feature installed in the woods - The Narnia Trail is a series of wooden carvings from C.S Lewis' books, so you'll get to come face-to-face with the lion, the witch and the wardrobe (and Lucy)! Lastly, the woods are home to the Roman Snail, which has a white-ish shell are protected under the Wildlife and Species Act 1981. However, they are edible and people are known to illegally collect these for use in restaurants.

Anyway, back to the run....

The paths are mostly pretty straight lines and even on the narrower sections are still wide enough to accomodate a couple of runners side-by-side. The course is shaped almost like a rectangle, but it might be better described as an irregular quadrilateral, trapezium or possibly even a parallelogram. However, I'm not an expert in geometry so I'll leave it at that. The corners (4 of them, of course) are all very clearly marked with large arrows, and occasionally you'll see a marshal too.

the uneven uphill path

The hill profile caught me out on one of my earlier visits because with the run starting over half-way up, it's easy to forget that there is one to climb. So after passing the finish area towards the end of the first lap and turning the corner, it can be a bit of a shock to the system. The climb is easily the trickiest part of the course, so along with having drag yourself up, the surface underfoot is very uneven with all sorts of rocks protruding. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if this is the remains of an old road of some kind (I can't find anything to confirm this, but maybe one of the locals will be able to shed some light on it).

The course does give back what it took going up the hill and most of the final kilometre is downhill (also most of the 2nd kilometre). In fact the configuration means that this is a 'net downhill' course - however you still have to get up the hill so I wouldn't necessarily expect to run any quicker because of this fact.

thanks to all of the volunteers

So with the almost-two-lap course complete, the fabulous finish funnel team will be awaiting your arrival with encouragement and smiles. Barcode scanning takes place at the original meeting point and you get a little clue that this is one of the grand old parkruns as the scanning points are still fondly known as 'registration'.

Post-run, the team move on to The Mint pub to process the results and have some refreshments. It's a short drive to get there but very worth it. I was also pleased to hear the call of 'RESULTS!' once they had been processed, it's only a small detail, but it's something that I found really nostalgic. After being made to feel very welcome (thanks for the tea) and chatting to a few people I hadn't seen for quite some time, I had to hit the road to Sparrows Den for the final KXCL cross-country race of the season.

registration and the mint

I had recorded my run using my Garmin and you can see the course route and profile via my Strava account. I also used the data to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app on my phone.

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Kent Fitness League 2017/18: Blean Woods

The Kent Fitness League fixture at Blean Woods, Rough Common is another great venue, but in the times I have run here I've always had trouble deciding whether to wear trail shoes or cross-country spikes. The problem is that the course features a fairly even split between squelchy mud and hard stony paths. So for the final race of the 2017/18 KFL season, I took both shoe options.

dartford harriers [photo: eden]

Upon arrival in the village of Rough Common, I found a space on a side street to park the car. For the record, the on-street car parking is very tight here, so it's a good idea to arrive early and be prepared to drive up-and-down the streets searching for a space. The race HQ is in the Rough Common Village Hall, and this is also where the toilets are located.

Standing in the hall looking out of the door at the combination of sleet and hail stones, it was clear that this outing was going to be pretty miserable. After chatting to some team mates, I found out that it was also quite windy out on the playing fields where the race starts and finishes. So heading over to the fields in the rain, I was eager to get started.

into the woods [photo: eden]

Back to the shoes conundrum - I had made a decision and went for the spikes. After a quick warm-up it was time to get going. So, after one-and-a-half laps around the sports fields and it was time to dive into the woods themselves. The entry began with a plunge into some fairly nasty mud which released the almighty stench lurking within.

The paths in the woods switch between thick mud and firm, stony paths. So, going back to the shoe choice, I think the best advice I can offer is this; if you really can't stand running on hard paths in spikes then go for your trail shoes. However, if you can deal with being uncomfortable underfoot at times, you will benefit from spikes on the muddier sections.

playing fields heading to the finish [photo: eden]

The paths undulate all the way around, and the ups-and-downs are typically covered over fairly long stretches. I tried to stick to the edges of the hard paths in an attempt to soften the impact, but it wasn't always possible to find enough soft mud to make much difference. With the wooded section complete, the course heads back out onto the sports field and around to the finish.

And with the race complete, the 2017/18 Kent Fitness League cross-country season came to a close. I quickly got changed out of my running gear and into something a little warmer. However, I was frozen to the core, so I discreetly trotted off in the direction of the car.

kfl 2017/18 season complete [thanks to paul for taking the post-race photo of me]

My club, Dartford Harriers, had won the team competition again (Hooops!). For me personally, it marked my second consecutive complete season (all seven races) and my KFL streak reached 15 consecutive races. It turns out that I also ran a course best time, shaving 15 seconds off my previous best from the 2016/17 race.

Official Results: KFL 2017/18 - Blean Woods

Race stats:

  • Overall position: 80 / 329
  • Gender position:  77 / 228
  • Age category position (VM40-44): 10 / 20
  • Rating: 66.67


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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Kent Fitness League 2017/18: Nurstead Court

Race six of the 2017/18 Kent Fitness League season took place in the grounds of the Grade I Listed Nurstead Court in Meopham. The grounds here are used by equestrians and features a purpose built cross-country course as well as many other horse related facilities.

dartford harriers

So, in the pre-race briefing we were told that the horses had been out in one of the fields and had churned it up, I noted it but wasn't overly concerned. The horn sounded and we all flew off to test ourselves over one of the best cross-country courses in the league. A real bonus was that the weather had slight spring feel to it, so I didn't have to wear a hat, arm warmers or gloves.

If you've read any of my previous posts (2014/15 and 2016/17) about this venue, you'll have a good idea what this course is like. If you haven't, you'll be pleased to hear that it has a bit of everything; uphills, downhills, mud, a water crossing, tree roots, branches, logs and bales of hay to jump over, forest paths, fields, open grass areas, and even some bomb craters!

kfl

As soon as we headed off along the start/finish straight, it was clear that the course was going to be soft underfoot and by the time I reached the water crossing (800 metres into the course) I was already suffering. This could in-part have been due to not having a proper warm-up - you see, there were five portaloos available and the queue was really long when I arrived. Long story short, my warm-up lasted 2 minutes.

So continuing around the first lap, I leapt over the bales of hay and then flew along the slightly downhill perimeter of the main horse shoe-jumping training field. Then I entered the woods - the twisty path was muddy, tree roots and logs were lurking everywhere. Through another field and then out onto a straight path which was caked in mud - I remember the first time I ran here and really struggling on the path. It was similar this time, but I was wearing spikes so coped ok.

kfl

After a short, sharp incline, I entered the muddiest of all fields. It wasn't just regular mud, it was churned up mud. Each footstep was a struggle and required vast amounts of energy to wade through - it was at this point I realised that my left shoe was a little loose. There was no way I was going to stop to re-tie the shoelace, thankfully it stayed attached to my foot for the rest of the race.

Now into the second wooded section - the fun to be had in here is off-the-scale! The paths twist all over, the terrain goes up and down - it was like a muddy, slightly dangerous, rollercoaster track. At the end of this section, the bomb craters are found - three of them. I was totally knackered already, but I dropped in and powered out of each one in turn. A few more twisty paths and then it was time for the long, uphill, drag towards the end of the lap.

kfl

At the top, I swung around and headed straight back down the hill to start lap 2. Strangely, despite feeling totally exhausted, with my arms seemingly just flapping around not under my control, I did manage to continue to catch and overtake quite a few other participants during the second half of the race. Water splash, hay bales, mud, downhill, uphill, and bomb craters all over again and it was time for the final stretch back along the opening path, and with that done, some serious recovery time was needed.

I picked up 97th finish position, which I was expecting to be a little higher. But that was out of 404 runners in total, so it's still in the top 25% overall. I was a few seconds slower than the previous year, but I think the course conditions were worse this time around, so on balance I think it worked out ok.

There were a few photographers out on the course whose photos I have used here, so I'm very grateful to Dawn Granger, Brian Pitkin, Eden Summers and my wife for getting some fantastic shots of the action.

My results:
  • Official time: 38.16
  • Overall position: 97 / 404
  • Gender position: 91 / 277
  • Age group position (VM40-44): 7 / 19
  • Rating: 67.51

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